Mercy Triumphs Over Judgement
APRIL 29, 2021
The basics of the Christian faith is not “love God, love people.”
That’s the summary of the law, which is not of faith, and is neither the beginning nor the advanced class of Christianity. In fact, the more stubbornly we return to rote law-keeping, the more likely we are to move away from God — not toward.
Instead, the big secret of the Bible is that no matter how many laws we obey, good deeds we tally, articles we read and repost, degrees we receive, mantras we recite, workouts we clock, or calories we count — at the end of the day, we fail to see beyond ourselves. This is the riddle, the mystery hidden for so much of the story: you and I can’t love God…and we are terrible at loving people. That is, unless it’s beneficial for us in some way, but is that love?
The Christian faith is built upon news, not a job description. It is good news that belongs to any who recognize the ways they have been running from God, even in their best efforts to be good and useful to the world. Jesus saves tired sinners. This is both the beginning class and the advanced degree of the Christian faith. It’s the gospel, the ultimate point of the story, whispered about, contrasted, or clearly articulated in every passage and genre, even in those sections that seem solely dedicated to talking about how to live a wise and upright life, like the book of Proverbs, which has more to say about Jesus than we may recognize upon first reading.
But what about James?
What about the book of James and all that talk about faith being dead without works? Doesn’t it suggest we return to a form of being good — some list of dos and do nots in order to work out our salvation with fear and trembling? The question is appropriate.
Where much of the New Testament letters focus on ways to answer the question, “What saves: faith or works?”James considers a different question, that is, how can we recognize the faith that saves? What does it look like? James agrees with the rest of the story — faith isn’t meant for Sundays only. The gospel re-shapes us and our movement in the world we inhabit.
And yet, even though James tackles an important question, many of us have been inclined to water down his message to somehow mean “go and be good now that you know God.” This is not only unhelpful, but it also inevitably leads us to focus more on ourselves, which in turn makes us less productive in the good we originally aspired to do. In the long run, we will ping back and forth between a state of being weighed down by not doing enough or an inflated sense of how awesome we are because of the one or two things we do well.
Two forms of law
Fortunately, the New Testament doesn’t present good works as a new law with curses and rewards. James understands this and equips us with better categories for growing in holiness — categories that take seriously the two covenants of Scripture:
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
The royal law of Scripture does not lead to life. In fact, it leads to death after rightly stamping the label “lawbreaker” on all of us. When we double down on our efforts to live under the royal law, we drink the Space Jam placebo of “Michael’s Secret Stuff,” puffed up on the inactive medicine of our own ability, waiting to deflate the moment we come into contact with a real opponent.
But the law that gives freedom is really no law at all. It’s mercy, which changes you in a way that the law cannot, by speaking a better word to lawbreakers — not one of “do more tomorrow,” but “rest right now, and return again tomorrow to the one who took on the curses of the law for you, in love.” The royal law of Scripture cannot offer freedom because it was designed to increase burden, yoking its hearers to look for relief outside of their own efforts. The law that gives freedom is the gospel and it belongs to those who have tried, failed, and now seek that which depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
Grace changes everything
Here is where the rubber meets the road in real life. The faith that saves looks not like performing at the expert level in the royal law of Scripture, but like walking under the easy yoke of the law that gives freedom by growing in the gospel. Mercy triumphs over judgment; therefore, mercy is more effective in making us holy. In other words, our doing begins and ends with our believing. What would a person do if they truly believed they were fully absolved, never under scrutiny for the remainder of their days?
When Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector meets Jesus, his life is transformed in a way that the law can’t rival. After a lifetime of swindling and stealing from his own people, he encounters God’s grace, then gives away half his stuff and returns fourfold what he has stolen — blowing the requirements of the law out of the water. Mercy one-ups the moral transformation in our lives the law sought ought but could never deliver. Encountering the real, risen Jesus again and again is always more effective in bringing about the goodness that we can’t cause in ourselves. Rather than attempting to take on the army of our own sin and selfishness head on, the mercy of the gospel flanks the enemy from the side as we stand in awe as the stronger man binds our enemies, cures our diseases, and throws a banquet for us, even in the presence of that which threatens to do us the most harm.
Henry David Thoreau said it well, “there are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Grow in holiness through the gospel not through your own law-infused, evil-hacking efforts. Look to Jesus, the one who was struck for us in order to mete out the final, root-destroying death blow to evil. He triumphed over judgment permanently in his once-for-all loving act of substitutionary mercy. Heed the book of James, believe Jesus.